The amount GW gives in merit-based scholarships has increased about 37 percent since 2010, representing a slice of the financial aid pool that has swelled each year to help officials lure higher-achieving students to campus.
The University gave merit scholarships to about 17 percent of students this fall, a 3 percentage-point jump from the year before. Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management, said the admissions office was “a little more aggressive” when giving out merit aid because of a more competitive class of incoming freshmen.
“When you have stronger students, you have more students to give merit to,” Koehler said.
But experts say merit packages, which totaled about $29 million at GW this year, are also a recruiting tool to bring in middle-class students who can afford to pay more in tuition overall. Because the University meets about 88 percent of need, that’s money that also could have gone to more need-based scholarships.
GW’s financial aid pool increased about $6 million last spring, bringing the total to about $170 million. The University’s overall financial aid budget has more than doubled over the last decade.
Merit aid increased partly because of a larger class of athletic recruits this year, which made up about a quarter of the merit awards, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistance Dan Small said.
“That can also fluctuate, too, from year to year because you could have a couple of sports where they’re heavy on seniors,” Small said.
Will Doyle, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, said schools use merit aid to compete in a “higher-education arms race,” which has them vying for top students with other universities.
“It’s really expensive to recruit more and more of these high-quality students, and the situation institutions find themselves in is they can’t keep up. You don’t have to spend just a certain amount, you have to spend more than everyone else,” Doyle said.
Boston University, one of GW’s peer schools, gave out merit scholarships to about 25 percent of students this fall, a spokesman said. Vanderbilt University, another peer, put about 16.4 percent of its financial aid budget toward merit aid.
GW spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to say the average size of merit-aid gifts this year, but said the packages can range from $4,000 to full tuition.
Unlike a need-based package, which is calculated based on the amount a student can afford to pay, Doyle said merit aid often only impacts which school a student chooses – not if they end up going to college at all.
“[Merit aid] will almost never affect whether or not a student goes to college,” Doyle said. “Need-based aid does affect whether a student goes.”
GW also relies on tuition money for more than half of its overall revenue, so enrolling more middle-class students who can pay larger portions of tuition is important for its bottom line.
Last fall, officials admitted publicly for the first time that they place a portion of applicants on the waitlist if they cannot afford to pay full tuition.
Sandy Baum, a financial aid expert and researcher in GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said increasing revenue would be one of the major reasons a school like GW would grow its merit-based aid, because the students who receive merit scholarships likely can afford to pay more in tuition.
“They don’t think they can afford to just enroll all the students who can’t pay,” Baum said.
Steve Burd, a senior policy analyst in education policy at the New America’s Education Policy Program, said schools also increase their merit aid to bring in high-test-scoring students, which could increase their rankings.
“These colleges every year want to say, ‘We have got the best class ever. Our average SAT score’s this much higher,’” Burd said. “I’m just not sure that’s really the most important mission for universities. I do really worry about the accessibility for low-income students.”
Burd said that strategy could also hurt a school like GW, which has been criticized for only attracting wealthy students.
“Ever since [former University President Stephen Joel] Trachtenberg got there, they really have been trying to make the school more appealing for to an upscale crowd,” Burd said.
Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.